The weirdest national conventions

The weirdest national conventions
© Getty Images

Both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention this year have been reduced by the coronavirus to a virtual production. I am a fan of Eva Longoria, the moderator of the first night shows for the left. She once starred in “The Young and the Restless,” a critical electoral subset for both campaigns. But national conventions without the spontaneity, the live musical interludes, and the delegates dancing to “Hey Macarena” are simply strange. These are the weirdest moments in the national conventions over the decades.

For the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012, the actor Clint Eastwood, a winner of numerous Academy Awards, could have received one for the “Most Awkward Performance” when he decided to debate an empty chair as if Barack Obama were sitting on it. As the Huffington Post wrote, “By the time it was over, most viewers were trying to comprehend why it had even been allowed to happen in the first place.”

The Democratic National Convention in New York in 1980 had some fails. Jimmy Carter, who was trying to lavish praise on a former vice president, conflated him with a fictional naval hero when he said, “A great man who should have been president, who would have been one of those greatest presidents in history, Hubert Horatio Hornblower Humphrey.” Then there was the massive display for balloons that was meant to end the event. In this case, only a few dribbled down, like drops from leaky faucets. When campaign balloons lack energy, it usually means trouble.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, thousands of Vietnam War protesters battled police in the streets. Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy had challenged the party to more harshly oppose the conflict. Fights broke out on the convention floor. Journalist Dan Rather was accosted by security guards and could be heard saying, “Take your hands off me unless you are planning to arrest me.” He was punched in the stomach, as Walter Cronkite called the guards thugs. The delegates left Chicago divided and dispirited against Richard Nixon.

Then there was the Republican National Convention out in San Francisco in 1964, as the party was split by hardline conservatives, led with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, and moderates, who scrambled to swiftly name Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton. “The hour is late,” claimed New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, “but if all leaders in the mainstream of the party unite upon a platform and upon Scranton, the moderate cause can be won.” In the middle of shouting from the crowd, Rockefeller then claimed, “These extremists feed on fear, hate, and terror.”

The Democratic National Convention in New York in 1924 was to find an opponent to Calvin Coolidge. Neither of the clear front runners, former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs and New York Governor Albert Smith, could secure the nomination for the first ballot. It went to a second one and then to over 100 ballots for the longest convention in history. It was also the first convention that considered the nomination of a woman for vice president under activist Lena Springs. The nomination of president finally went to former Virginia Representative John Davis.

During the Democratic National Convention in Charleston in 1860, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas was the leading candidate, but hot divides over slavery disrupted the event. After no candidate received the votes to lock the nomination, the delegates went home. They reconvened a few weeks later in Baltimore and left without results. In the end, northern Democrats endorsed Douglas while southern Democrats backed Vice President John Breckinridge. In case you might be wondering, the winner of the election was the little known Republican named Abraham Lincoln.

History is often as much about the future as it is the past.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.